The phrase "prayer changes things" has been around for a long time. For years I had no argument with the phrase. I didn't pray much, so I had no way of testing it; my prayers were strictly self-serving: "please, God, change this or that for me". Most of the time, God didn't grant those wishes but I figured He was busy or knew it wasn't good for me. The phrase "God knows best" was a corollary adage in my mind.
After some struggles with relationships that involved alcohol or other addictive stuff, I found AlAnon and began to work the program of the 12 steps. My first challenge was to find a Higher Power and relax into the knowledge that I could "let go and let God". This was not easy for someone who had always been in charge of her own destiny, who had always fixed things, who had been let down often enough to believe that she couldn't trust another person to come through for her.
But I dealt with it, internalized the steps as a way of life, and lived more or less happily and prayer-free for several years. The call to ministry came in the middle of those years and when I was able to answer it, I found myself at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where they did a lot of praying. Those United Methodists, you know, they pray a lot. And I was expected to take part. We UU students were even asked to offer grace at community meals, occasionally. When I was fingered for the job, I took refuge in a sung blessing. When we didn't offer a prayer at our assigned chapel services, nobody seemed to think it was anything but Unitarian Universalist practice---which, of course, it is in many congregations.
There came the moment when, in my process toward Fellowshipping, I began to see a spiritual director, to help me soften some of my intensity (who me, intense? surely you jest!). She asked me to think about what specific spiritual discipline I would like to develop, and to my great surprise, I said, "I want to learn how to pray."
That was in 1998 and since that time, I have had a regular prayer practice. It's not fancy; I don't kneel or use anything but a small candle as a ritual flame. But for the past nine years, nearly every night before I go to bed, I light my candle and pray. And in those nine years, I realize that I have learned a great deal about prayer and what works for me.
First of all, when I am praying, God is personal to me. But God is not an omnipotent sugar daddy who will change the course of the universe for me. God is more like a cosmic teddy bear, to whom I pour out the details of my day, telling "him" of my gratitude for a good day, relating the not-so-good moments, regretting my mistakes, and asking for help to be a good minister, a good parent, a good sister, a good friend. I ask that God be with my family members and give them the help they need to cope with their lives; I ask that God be with me in my day to day activities. I ask that God bring healing to those who are in pain or struggling with health issues and that I may be of help in some way to those I meet. I ask for a good night's sleep and a sense of refreshment and health in the morning.
You may have noticed that I don't ask for stuff. I ask for help in my daily life. I ask for a chance to be helpful to those I meet. I ask for strength to deal with life's challenges, words to ease someone's unhappy heart. When I am feeling desperate, I ask for a sense of connection to carry me through to the other side of desperation. These prayers are always answered! And I always say thank you, thank you, thank you, God. Prayer has changed me, more than it has changed things.
Yesterday, at Whidbey General Hospital, I prayed with several folks, none of whom are Unitarian Universalist. They just needed prayer, someone to say to God what they didn't feel able to say themselves. They wanted someone with them as they spent time with God. And the words always come. And I am always grateful.